A Mammoth Theatrical Experience

It’s been like a fever dream. One minute, I’m wrapping up a full remastering of the entire Skeeter Bite Productions archive (more on that in a later post!!!) the next, it’s four months later and we’re almost ready to open the first show of Southern Hills Community Theatre’s 6th season.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that because it’s being staged in Hot Springs, “A Mammoth in Harmes Way” has anything to do with the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, but in fact it does not. The show, instead, draws from the experiences of Kathe Holen, whom I had worked with on The Christmas Heist when she played Mrs. Phyllis Falkowitz, and has an archaeological bent, not a paleontological one. Kathe and her husband Steve, as it turns out, are archaeologists and were among the co-authors of a paper presenting evidence that mammoth bones found in California may have been broken by humans almost 130,000 years ago.

That paper, published on April 26, 2017 (just a hair under a year ago as of this post) in the scientific journal Nature, rocked the archaeological world and was featured across the mainstream media. You name it, they covered it: Washington Post, NBC, ABC, NatGeo, NPR, CNN, Buzzfeed, The New Yorker, LA Times, The Atlantic… the list went on and on…

I had read about it and knew the Holens had co-authored it, but I guess, to be frank, I didn’t understand the weight of it until later. It’s probably a good thing though that I wasn’t as intimidated as I probably should have been when Kathe approached the board of SHCT with her script for “A Mammoth in Harmes Way.” While the script was not at all based on actual events, the inspirations are clear with an emphasis on controversial findings, backlash and skepticism in the scientific community, and accurately depicting real archaeology.

Among that was peppered a potent blend of fictional mystery, drama, romance and even hints of social commentary on women in science as journalist Beth tagged along on an expedition with Dr. Robert Hedlund, and his team of archaeologists and volunteers, unraveling not only a scientific puzzle, but a larger, darker secret surrounding the Harmes Way excavation site.

We were just on the tail end of the summer show HMS Pinafore, when I first read “Mammoth.” What immediately struck me about the script was the earnestness and honesty with which it was written. There were no cheap narrative tricks… there was zero cynicism. You could sense authenticity in every line.

Quite a good chunk of the plays SHCT have undertaken in the first five years were shows written by playwrights, men and women who churn out several scripts a year full time to keep revenue flowing. Formulaic is a generous description. But don’t get me wrong, they have their place – sometimes you want to go to a theater, turn your brain off, be entertained, get fed the right emotional beats, and leave without remembering the name of the show in six months.

Ten points for wistfully longing for the good ol’ days. Twenty-five points if they reference Shakespeare anywhere in the script. Fifty points if it’s a holiday show that’s an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.” One hundred points if the plot is about staging a play-within-a-play, doing a radio or TV show, or writing scripts and things going awry.

The other night, I sat down to finalize the last of the Skeeter Bite archival transfers: I Sent My Grandma Into The Past, The Christmas Heist, and Christmas Radio. I hadn’t watched “Radio” since probably mid-2014. How much our little theatre has grown since then! Isaiah, who plays one of the leads, Dr. Robert Hedlund, in “A Mammoth in Harmes Way” was 15 or 16 years old when we did “Radio.”And I thought the last four months flew by, let alone the last 5 years!

It had been the first show which I had written part of (the bookends surrounding the radio play adaptation of A Christmas Carol – said script racks up 185 points at least, thankyouverymuch!) and the first show that I had directed. The Christmas Carol portion wasn’t anything to write home about, but those bookends, if I can humblebrag a bit, were pretty all right! Not great but I still think they’re kinda charming.

In particular, toward the end of the show, there’s a moment where Sam Martin, playing the Orson Welles knock-off Richard Ives, berates the radio station’s cast for all the production woes. But Isaiah’s character, Jack, stands up to him, telling him that despite everything, the little troupe had done their best with what they had.

At the time, it was an intentional coda to the whole season. It was the last show of SHCT’s first season. Sure there plans for the next year, but who knew how long the theater would live? I didn’t know if I would ever get to write or direct another show again. Betsy had taken a chance on me without knowing whether I even could write and I wasn’t going to waste it.

I knew when I read “Mammoth” that I wanted to take the same sort of chance on Kathe that Betsy had taken on me, and Kathe had expressed an interest in having me direct it if we thought the show was good enough to stage.

Kathe and I had a great sit-down meeting where we explored in great detail all the questions that I always ask myself whenever I am writing and directing my own material: Who are these characters? What are their motivations? What’s going on between the lines, before and after scenes? Why does this character know this piece of information and how did they learn it? How does one character feel about another even though they may never speak a line between them? Thinking about a story in a deeper, more self-critical way that’s equal parts objective and subjective was a lesson I myself had learned the hard way, especially on Never Been to Graceland. Knowing how it had been inspired by so many real elements in her life, I wanted to save Kathe the heartbreak of losing something beloved dearly late in the game like I lost AJ’s subplot in Graceland. Thankfully it wasn’t anything we had to really worry about!

After the dinner theatre was done in late October, we held a read-through of the revised script, with some theatre friends joining us and filling in roles. Hearing it out loud just confirmed that the show was ready to be staged.

So here we are, less than 24 hours out from opening night. But it’s more than that. It’s the first show of our 6th Season, the first without Betsy (follow her over on the As We Go blog), Kathe’s first, and for me, the first thing I’ve ever directed that did not originate with myself. That might not seem significant, but this year marks the 15th year working by and largely only on my own material. I’m thrilled that “A Mammoth in Harmes Way” is the first major project to break that trend.

Looking back, that scene from Christmas Radio takes on less of a manifestation as a coda than something resembling a recurring mantra: no matter what anyone else says, no matter how many things might go wrong, and though I might not do things as well as a more experienced or trained director or writer might, but we’re going to do the best with what we have and hope folks enjoy it.

I’ll be back after the show to write more about the podcast I started with Gurdip Ladhar, TCBCast, and share some neat behind the scenes stuff from “A Mammoth in Harmes Way” as well as start outlining what the next couple years are gonna look like project-wise.

-Justin

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I Sent My Grandma Into the Past (Full Show)

I recorded all three performances of the show but it’s always tough deciding how best to present the results. Do you upload the Friday show, which had a bigger & louder audience response but wasn’t necessarily as accurate to the page? Do you upload the Saturday show, which was more accurate to the script in some parts but in others had some “oops” moments? Do you pick and choose whole scenes from all three nights to best represent the show, as I did with Christmas Heist? Or do you hodge-podge together a Frankenstein’s monster of all three, editing and splicing dialogue from one night to cover another’s flub, and editing between nights wherever possible?

Ultimately, I have chosen to upload the entire Saturday show, mostly unedited – save for the obvious fade ins and outs. While it didn’t have as big of a response as the Friday show, it was better performed, had the fewest technical problems (read: the microphones were all on the whole show) and it was, for the most part, the performance that most represented the script on the whole, despite an ad-lib here and there, and poor Jordyn’s stumble in Act 2!

Without further ado, please enjoy “I Sent My Grandma Into the Past! (And Other Chronological Conundrums)”

Recovery

WE DID IT!

I Sent My Grandma Into The Past (And Other Chronological Conundrums) played March 30-31 and April 1 at the Mueller Civic Center to wonderful reception by the community.

As these things tend to go, I inevitably ended up with a pretty awful cold performance week, with it peaking in intensity on Friday and Saturday – two of the performance dates! All three performances would not have been possible without the help of Deana Roberts, who diligently kept me full of Theraflu, Mucinex, and a variety of cough drops, fluids and other helpful goodies.

But most of all, the cast and crew of I Sent My Grandma pulled out all the stops and gave phenomenal performances, despite some minor technical issues on the back end. No matter how hard I was trying to stifle a disruptive cough, I could not help but grin during Zach’s “beat poem” (Pictured above) which of all scenes probably had the loudest and most raucous audience reaction – and rightfully so. Zach’s over the top dramatic reading kept getting better and better each night as I could observe him playing off the audience’s reactions: the harder they laughed, the more of an affectation he put on.

Whether it has been Jamie Klotz, Christmas Heist or this, the thing I have always anticipated the most is the crowd reaction. If we’re eliciting any reaction, I’ve done something that has affected people, good or bad. Thankfully, the crowd was open with their laughter and reactions to the scenes.

The thing I’m most proud about in this script is what I feel to be strong, relatable characterizations. Every character gets a chance to shine and for the audience to learn who they are inside and sympathize with them. When the crowd cheered Grandma Margaret’s final interaction with her best friend Betsy, I knew we’d succeeded in making both of those characters strong enough for the audience to care. When the audience audibly cringed during Spencer and Zoey’s argument at the end of Act 1 as Spencer criticized Zoey, I knew that even though Zoey was the protagonist they cared about, they could tell she was still imperfect as person – and they cared about that. I’m really excited to be able to start developing stories with complex characters and hope to do so in my future projects.

So what’s next then?

Well, of course in August will be Never Been to Graceland’s premiere but as that is in post production, I am functionally project-less as far as having anything to write or start production on. I’m certainly going to take some recovery time after this show, but I do have a couple story ideas I’d like to pursue later this year and into 2018.

Stay tuned… I may have an announcement or two soon…

“I Sent My Grandma” Script Preview

Auditions are just under a week away for “I Sent My Grandma Into the Past.” If you’re interested in a part, check out this short script sample. Every character except Betsy (elder) and Tim appear in this scene.

Some advice for those who are thinking out coming to try for those parts that don’t appear in this scene: The elder Betsy is very much personality-wise like younger Betsy; that is, whiny and bratty, just older. Tim, on the other hand, is the smooth, fast-talking older salesman who convinces Zoey to buy “Timothy E. Traveller’s Amazing Patented Flux Timer 3000!” Think a cross between a used car salesman and a TV commercial pitch person.

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD PDF PREVIEW

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I Sent My Grandma Into The Past – Inspiration

Auditions are officially one week away for the Southern Hills Community Theater production of “I Sent My Grandma Into The Past (And Other Chronological Conundrums)” or, put simply, “I Sent Grandma” or “ISG,” as I’ll refer to it in the future. Although that wasn’t the first title it went by anyway, (that was “The Grandmother Paradox”) but I’m getting ahead of myself.

After premieres and performances, I (like millions of writers before me) have inevitably been asked (either immediately after the show or at a gas station somewhere a few days later) how I come up with the ideas for the shows, or how I write them. I’m not not sure of any more blunt way to put it other than to just say that I make it up. Literally. That’s how simple it is.

Well, it really isn’t. You do have to understand a lot of things going on under the hood – narrative structure, character, and in the case of theater, the technical elements of what’s possible on a stage in real time and staying within a budget – but essentially it’s highly organized making stuff up. But anyone can learn these things.

Dialogue is tangible. You can listen to the people around you, or watch videos of people talking and pick up on nuances – cadences, vocabulary, and so on and just imitate that in your writing. Story beats are tangible. Similarly, you can watch other movies and plays and eventually pick up common structures… it’s just like learning about choruses and verses in songs.

Inspiration, on the other hand, is intangible, and I don’t really think it can be learned in the same way. I think it can be learned but I don’t think there’s a set way of learning it. That’s something I have more trouble explaining.

Where do you get your ideas?

Sometimes, like with Never Been to Graceland, I go “this is going to be a story about a fan who goes in search of a lost Elvis recording because that would be cool if that happened to me.” Not to downplay whatever narrative merits it actually has, but that’s the truth of what that story is at its core.

It’s partially based on ideas or people or things that are real – an Elvis fan, lost recordings being found – and partially fiction, and then sort of meshed together.

So, one week out from auditions, where did the idea for “ISG” come from?

Well, leaving out the obvious influences as far as structure and handling the logic of time travel, (*cough* Backtothefuture *cough*) I honestly don’t have a more clear answer.

When Betsy and I were talking about the shows for 2017, I mentioned I had a couple ideas. One was an adaptation of The Big Play, a short that we never completed, and the other I just mentioned as “a couple” because I wanted the flexibility of coming up with something else. I actually had no idea until probably a few hours after I sent the email. Faced with committing to “a couple ideas,” I just made one up. I wrote a draft outline, took it to the board, read them both synopses (synopsises? Synopsii?) that I had written, and they picked this one. So I rolled with it.

How’d I come up with that synopsis in the first place?

Heck if I know. Some things are certainly pulled from life. The main character in “ISG” is inspired by my four year old niece Zoey and my observations of her very literal “character” development as an actual person. But beyond that… you got me. The show’s titular Grandma is only barely influenced by my real grandma and, frankly, probably not by anyone I actually know, either.

I was telling Deana last night, I couldn’t even possibly speak about the show in terms of “executing a vision” because it wasn’t like there was ever really a “vision” so to speak, just an idea I thought would be cute, funny and maybe have a little heart. That’s not to say the story isn’t personal or doesn’t reflect me or my values… it absolutely does, in every much the same way as my previous efforts.

And the script is, I think, funny, cute, and touching. But more than that, it’s proof to myself that I don’t have to stop writing when I’m run out of “real” things to write about.

What I think I’m getting at is that as someone who spent 2006-2016 chasing old narrative threads, it’s both strange and invigorating to be writing something pretty much completely from scratch.

I hope everyone likes it.

“I Sent My Grandma Into The Past!” Auditions February 13, 2016

grandma-auditions

Rehearsals will be Monday, Tuesday & Thursday evenings until performance week. Week of performance: Monday through closing performance. Additional rehearsals may be scheduled if needed.

Cast: 

With the “time travel” involved, there is a  “present time” & “past time” cast

PRESENT

Zoey – our heroine, a bit of a troublemaker – age 15-25, female
Grandma Margaret (is also Aunt Ima) – Zoey’s Grandma – age 60-80, female
Betsy (Elder) – Margaret’s friend – age 60-80, female
Spencer – Zoey’s Friend – age 15-25, male
Timothy E. Traveller – Kitchen Timer Salesman – male, age flex
PAST
Mags – the younger Margaret, also a bit of a troublemaker – age 15-25, female.
Betsy (Younger) – Mags’ best friend – age 15-25, female
Raymond – Mags’ father – age 40-60, male
Delilah – Mags’ mother – age 40-60, female
Billy – Mags’ little brother – age 7-12, male
Aunt Ima (is also Grandma Margaret) – age 60-80, female
What to expect at auditions:

We’ll have you fill out an information form and sign releases. Headshots are not required. If needed, we will take your photo. (If you are under 18, your parent/guardian will need to sign the forms for you as well.)

The director will ask you to read a portion of the script and may have you do some basic acting exercises.

A Note About Costumes:
This is a contemporary show and actors are expected to provide their own costumes following the suggestions of the director.

Crew/Front of House:

If you are interested in helping with other stage-crafts such as scenery, props, costumes, makeup, sound, lighting, directing or are more interested in serving as House manager, Box Office staff, Usher, Advertising or in other areas for this or future productions, please let Southern Hills Community Theater know. No experience? No worries! Our goal is to help folks learn about the theatrical arts as well.

For these and any other inquiries, please contact shct@gwtc.net or leave a messsage at 605-745-6159 for details and they’ll get back to you as soon as they can.

Details for “I Sent My Grandma Into the Past!”

main-logo-draft-2Zoey’s Grandma Margaret is having a hard time figuring out the secret ingredient for her mother’s old cookie recipe. But when she accidentally confuses a magic time machine for a kitchen timer, Grandma finds herself 60 years in the past and has to disguise herself as her own Great Aunt Ima! Now, Zoey and her best friend Spencer have to find a way to get bring Grandma home from the past before her actions start changing the futures of her teenage self, Mags, her friends, and own family – including Zoey!

I Sent My Grandma Into the Past! (and other Chronological Conundrums) is the second fully original play by writer Justin Gausman and like “The Christmas Heist” before it, offers an exciting blend of hilarious hijinks, dramatic moments, fun action and unexpected twists.

Auditions will be held at 7:00pm on Monday, February 13, 2017 at the Mueller Civic Center in Hot Springs, SD. Performances will be March 30, March 31 and April 1, 2017.

CHARACTER/CAST DETAILS

PRESENT

Zoey – our heroine, a bit of a troublemaker – age 15-25, female
Grandma Margaret – Zoey’s Grandma – age 60-80, female
Betsy (Elder) – Margaret’s friend – age 60-80, female
Spencer – Zoey’s Friend – age 15-25, male
Timothy E. Traveller – Kitchen Timer Salesman – male, age flex

PAST

Mags – the younger Margaret, also a bit of a troublemaker – age 15-25, female
Betsy (Younger) – Mags’ best friend – age 15-25, female
Raymond – Mags’ father – age 40-60, male
Delilah – Mags’ mother – age 40-60, female
Billy – Mags’ little brother – age 7-12, male